During a football game, Johnny Bright’s jaw was broken by a racist. His resolve was not.
Johnny Bright is in the Canadian Football League Hall of Fame for his outstanding professional career. However, he’s best known for being victimized during his college career.
Johnny Bright enrolled at Drake University in 1948 to compete in football, basketball, and track. He played a hybrid halfback/quarterback position at Drake. In his junior year, he set NCAA records for total offense. During his senior year, he was considered a Heisman trophy contender.
On October 20, 1951, Drake played a football game against Oklahoma A&M (Now Oklahoma State). Within the first seven minutes of the game, Bright was knocked unconscious three times by Oklahoma A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith.
In practice leading up to the game, Oklahoma A&M head coach motivated his team with a simple mantra: “Get the nigger”.
It seems that the coach’s instructions resonated with his players. At the beginning of the game, one Oklahoma A&M player said, “We’re going to get that nigger.” As you can see, they lacked creativity.
After being knocked unconscious three times, Johnny Bright stayed in the game. After a hand-off to the running back, Wilbanks Smith elbowed Johnny Bright in the jaw hard enough to break his jaw. With a broken jaw, Bright still completed a 61-yard touchdown pass. His injury eventually forced him to leave the game. This was the first game of the season that Bright finished without at least 100 yards.
This became known as The Johnny Bright Incident.
Due to his injury, he was limited all season and missed large portions of three games. He finished fifth in the Heisman trophy race. There’s no telling what would have happened if Wilbanks Smith hadn’t broken Bright’s jaw.
Bright was picked in the first round of the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles but chose to play for the Calgary Stampeders in the precursor to the CFL. He retired as the CFL’s all-time leading rusher.
He died of a heart attack while undergoing knee surgery for an injury sustained during his football career.
Why he should be remembered: When asked about Wilbanks Smith breaking his jaw, Johnny Bright remarked that his injury had improved college football. In response to the Johnny Bright Incident, the NCAA introduced more protective helmets and new regulations about illegal hits. Johnny Bright held no animosity towards his attacker. For that reason, he was a better man than most.
Read more about Johnny Bright.
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Photo— Flickr/ Library Archives of Canada